Filipe Manu pronounces his Italian beautifully; the words drip off his tongue and it makes for delightful listening.

Manu will need that excellent enunciation; the tenor has been cast as Romeo (which he pronounces roMAYo, with just a hint of rolled 'r') in Bellini's 1830 opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi aka The Capulets and Montagues — as in Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague.

The production is the latest from Frances Wilson and her Auckland Opera Studio, a talent incubator that trains and supports local singers at no charge, helping them make the leap from New Zealand to the world.

In a piece of stunt casting, Wilson has selected Manu's partner, Madison Nonoa, as Giulietta/Juliet; it's the first time Manu and Nonoa have appeared together in lead roles.
Both study in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and have form in our biggest prize for opera singers, the Lexus Song Quest. Manu came second in 2016 and this year took the Kiri Te Kanawa Foundation scholarship for most promising singer, an award Nonoa claimed two years ago.

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Wilson has been integral to both singers' careers. Manu's first production, for Auckland Opera Studio in 2009, was Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. The young singer, still at school, was a member of the chorus and stood next to Pene Pati, now a rising international opera star and member of Sol3 Mio.

"I didn't know who he was," says Manu, "but he made quite a sound; it was pretty special."

Pati isn't appearing in this production but another singer on the cusp of a big career is: Lexus 2018 winner Joel Amosa ("Ah, darling Joel," Wilson says at the mention of his name), who takes the role of Capellio. Wilson and Amosa met when the baritone was a student at Otago university; he sang his first Mozart opera, Cosí fan tutte, with Auckland Opera Studio.

Nonoa and Wilson have history, too.

"I've known Frances for a very long time," says Nonoa. "She's one of the most important singing teachers I had in New Zealand. She's been very supportive in terms of giving me performance opportunities and been instrumental in preparing me for this role."

It's a role rarely heard in New Zealand and Wilson says that's one of the reasons she picked I Capuleti e i Montecchi, which Auckland Opera Studio stages with stripped-back instrumentation of piano, flute, French horn and clarinet.

Bellini's opera is not based on Shakespeare. Rather, it comes from an Italian play, Giulietta e Romeo, by Luigi Scevola, which was itself derived from a novella by Luigi da Porto that predates The Bard's work by some 60 years. Here the Montagues and Capulets are rival political factions and the two leads a bit less, well, drippy than their more famous counterparts.

"I think in this version of the story you feel a lot more sympathy for [Juliet]," says Nonoa. "She's actually quite a strong woman in this treatment; she's having to stand up to all these men and a lot of the time she is holding her ground. Often that means saying no to her father, but she's also saying no to Romeo."

Despite their extra maturity, Bellini's Romeo and Juliet are not beyond a bit of adolescent foolishness (spoiler alert: their fate is similar to Shakespeare's play).

"Some of the things Romeo does are questionable and over-dramatic but there's no doubt that what they're going through is very real to them," says Manu by way of defence.
"That's one of the things I'm focusing on; I have to be sure to take what he's going through and the decisions he makes very seriously."

Romeo is usually sung by a mezzo-soprano but it's a good fit for Manu, who is a specialist in the Italian bel canto style Bellini favoured.

"Bel canto is all about singing long, beautiful phrases," Manu says. "The music lets the voice shine through and show it in its best light. I love it, it's like jumping into a warm bath and letting the worries of the world fade away."

That's not to say I Capuleti e i Montecchi is an easy sing. Wilson is known for choosing operas that stretch her young charges. Auckland Opera Studio has previously staged such tongue twisters as Mozart's Idomeneo and Handel's notoriously tough Oreste.

"I don't put on anything the singers can't do," says an unrepentant Wilson. "When we give them a difficult piece it's throwing down the gauntlet in an atmosphere of care. It's like a nursery, really; we nurture and feed them. And bully them a bit."

Lowdown
What: Auckland Opera Studio presents I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini
Where & When: Mercury Theatre; Friday, August 24 and Sunday, August 26